The EU’s Home Affairs commissioner considers that a de-escalation of the situation at the border with Belarus is underway. The European Commission is working on a proposal for provisional emergency asylum and return measures to help member states “manage irregular arrivals in a swift and orderly way”. National human rights institutions (NHRIs) and NGOs however highlight non-respect for the right to seek asylum and ongoing pushbacks. Poland’s Ombudsman has called for the acquittal of AFP and ARTE journalists reprimanded for entering the state of emergency zone.

Thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis and Afghans seeking protection in Europe have arrived at the borders of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland after being ushered through Belarus by state forces since mid-August. According to the EU, over 40,000 attempts to enter the EU via the Belarus border have been prevented in 2021. Speaking to Euronews on 23 November, Home Affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said the situation was now “de-escalating”. For the EU, the key to resolving the crisis lies in sanctioning Belarus, pressuring third countries to prevent journeys to Belarus, and ensuring swift returns. The Commission has published a draft law blacklisting airlines or travel operators that fly people to EU-bordering countries as part of “attempts to destabilise” the bloc. The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, met with the foreign ministers of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan as well as Turkmenistan’s deputy foreign minister, to request their support in “preventing th[e] instrumentalization of human beings”. These countries will receive almost half of the one billion euro EU support package for Afghanistan, as they neighbour the Taliban-controlled country. Borrell announced on 22 November that Uzbekistan had agreed to prevent passengers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen from travelling to Belarus. European Commission Vice President “embarked last week on a tour of Baghdad, Beirut, Dubai and Ankara” to persuade Iraq, Lebanon, UAE and Turkey to do the same.

Another aspect of the Commission response is a forthcoming proposal on provisional emergency measures on asylum and return as a result of the eastern border ‘crisis’. This will support member states to: “set up the right processes, to manage irregular arrivals in a swift and orderly way, in line with fundamental rights”. Some commentators found this announcement “ominous”, given accusations of Commission complicity in the erosion of asylum at the bloc’s eastern frontier. Where asylum claims are examined, the fairness of the procedure has been challenged. In Lithuania, only 10 asylum requests have been granted out of the 2,639 applications made (excluding those from Belarusians) since August. In early October, Frontex reported that up to 20 serious incident reports had been made regarding the treatment of asylum seekers by Lithuanian guards. According to Johansson, a balance can be found between ‘border security’ and fundamental rights protections. “We should not legalise pushbacks, but it’s also important to say member states are obliged to prevent unauthorised entries. Sometimes the debate is a bit black or white. We have to do both. We do not have free entry to the EU … We have to protect our external border but we have to do it in a way that is compliant with European values.”

The de-escalation of the situation at the border is the result not only of the work of humanitarian actors in providing aid and EU efforts to block arrivals, but also Belarusian efforts to relocate and return people. By November 18, Belarusian border guards said all the people in the Brouzgui makeshift camp had been transferred on a voluntary basis to temporary accommodation. Belarus has also facilitated return flights, which on 22 and 23 November returned 122 and 118 people respectively. On the EU side of the border, Frontex is assisting Poland and Lithuania with returns. The agency has organised 13 flights from Poland this year to return 62 Iraqis. Frontex plans to return a total of 1,700 people to Iraq. The human cost of the border emergency has nonetheless been heavy, with thirteen people, including a one year-old child, losing their lives as a result of the EU-Belarus showdown.

A new report published by Human Rights Watch details ongoing serious abuses against people on the move at the EU’s eastern frontier. Innumerable testimonials depict inhuman and degrading treatment by Belarusian guards. These include people beaten up, forced to cut through the fence, prevented from leaving, and punished for not attempting to cross the barbed wire. Yet, as rights abuses take place on both sides of the border, the NGO highlights that responsibility does not fall solely on Belarus. Poland has generated acute suffering by refusing to assess asylum applications and violently pushing people back. Lithuania has conducted an alarming number of pushbacks at the EU border, with the border guard service claiming to have prevented 7,000 people from crossing the border since August. Pushbacks – though ‘legalised’ under recent legislation by Poland, Lithuania and Latvia – contravene international law and EU fundamental rights norms. The independent national human rights watchdogs (NHRIs) of the three states have each raised the alert about the desecration of the right to seek asylum. Poland’s NHRI has spoken out against legislative changes allowing authorities to refuse to examine asylum claims, Latvia’s NHRI has emphasised the need for individual assessment at borders, and Lithuania’s NHRI has decried legal amendments that undermine human rights. Each have provided urgent recommendations that have gone unheeded by the EU states.

Poland continues to implement a ban on all journalists and humanitarians seeking to access the border zone. After three journalists from AFP and ARTE were reprimanded by a Polish court for entering the state of emergency zone, the Ombudsman has found the ban to be in contravention of the Polish constitution. Arguing that the ban exceeds the permissible limits on individual freedoms, the Ombudsman has asked for the acquittal of the journalists. Activists are also criminalised. At the start of the month, two people found to be driving two Iraqi citizens were arrested and charged with aiding illegal border crossings. When asked about Poland’s decision to shut out media, Ylva Johansson said: “I think that this is not the right thing. We need transparency. We need access for media, we need access for NGOs. And of course, also we need compliance with our fundamental rights”. In a recent statement, ECRE member the International Rescue Committee has called for “unfettered humanitarian access and a firm defence of the right to asylum at border areas”.

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Photo: (cc) Kancelaria Premiera, 11 November 2021

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.